Before seeing the film, my friend and I discussed some of our favorite classic movie musicals; Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins itself. Mary Poppins Returns absolutely captures the spirit of a classic movie musical, and makes for an incredibly engaging sequel, albeit one released 54 years after its predecessor.
The film itself takes place a generation after the events of Mary Poppins (1964). The children from the first film, Jane and Michael, are grown up. Michael has three children of his own (Anabel, John and Georgie). Michael and the new Banks children, along with maid Ellen, reside in the Banks house, a house currently feeling the absence of Michael’s wife after her death about a year ago. The children have had to grow up significantly to care for their bereaved and flighty father, ‘little grown-ups” as Ellen says, and then it comes to light that the family is set to lose their house. This final crisis is what prompts Mary Poppins to arrive.
It’s not a delightful premise for a film, but the delight and magic are derived not from the situations at hand, but how the characters react to them. The film begins with lamplighter Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda as a working-class Bert stand-in toting a slightly better accent than Van Dyke) singing about the “lovely London sky,” a statement that has rarely if ever been objectively true– but he sings it in such an earnest fashion that it’s obvious he really believes it, and in experiencing his optimism, the viewer becomes somewhat optimistic as well. Jack’s optimism remains a guiding force in the film– Mary Poppins focuses more on getting things done, in whatever manner is necessary, even sometimes bordering on cruel. Jack, however, lights the way for the other characters in the film, and believes in them all earnestly and without question, just as he believes that the world is at its heart a beautiful place. His presence occasionally comes off as overbearing, but it’s necessary to the film and to the world in which it is set.
Mary Poppins takes the children and the viewers into a delightful world of imagination and resilience through some breathtaking musical numbers– first emerged in a bathtub to a fantastic ocean, and then to a world within a porcelain bowl, in a long and gorgeous 2D animation sequence, some of the most beautiful animation that has been on the big screen in recent years. The film’s musical numbers aid the film in combining whimsy and reality to make for a lovely adventure.
Although the film’s internal conflict is about coping with grief, its external conflict focuses on working class individuals and labor organizers uniting against bank owners. This is a classic conflict that never fails to hold up in film. Although many struggles are overcome in this film, it does seem necessary to have an external struggle parallel the internal ones, and that’s one reason a malicious, pocket watch-twiddling banker is so important. The struggle to avoid foreclosure provides the excuse for the personal growth that occurs in the film, and it’s a compelling and classic struggle indeed.
Poppins doesn’t always hit its mark. There’s a lengthy scene and musical number involving Meryl Streep as Poppins’s Cousin Topsy that leans heavily into (not entirely flattering) Romani stereotypes, and the whole scene feels a bit contrived and unnecessary, an excuse to utilize Streep in a film. At times in the film, one gets the impression that musical numbers were written first and the plot had to be hammered into a certain mold. Certain moments feel jarring, when one is lifted out of the magic of the film to feel somewhat uncomfortable. This is mostly a testament, however, to how engaging and immersive the film is overall (although, I truly cannot stress enough how much the film could and should do without Streep’s entire scene and number).
In the middle of a very cold winter such as this one, I feel that many people are in need of some extra magic, and Mary Poppins Returns delivers that. This film’s magic, however, is made arguably more powerful than the original Mary Poppins, due to the fact that it comes amidst sadness, grief and loneliness. Even the finale, as heart-lifting as it is, carries an underlying current of melancholy. These emotions do not diminish the magic, but make it more powerful; even amongst struggles and heartbreak, whimsy and magic can be found and embraced. This is an important message, perhaps now more than ever, and the film and its musical numbers are sure to remain near and dear to many hearts for years to come.